Fishing with bears

Some people fish with nets, others fish with rods and, in the North, they fish with grizzly bears. Bears, anglers and tourists frequently share…

Some people fish with nets, others fish with rods and, in the North, they fish with grizzly bears.

Bears, anglers and tourists frequently share the cramped banks of the Chilkoot River near Haines, Alaska.

A 1.6-kilometre stretch of river flowing into Lutak Inlet attracts thousands of salmon each year and, with a road running alongside, is heavily used by the public.

“There are days when there are just a line of cars and people along that road and bears can’t leave the river to get up to the woods, or they can’t get down to the river,” said Haines wildlife biologist Polly Hessing.

“So it’s really important that people think of those things and pay attention.”

Roughly 20,000 people visit the river each summer, many of them Yukoners. Some fishers are consequently fending off the bears, while others come to view and photograph them.

There are some obvious conflicts between user groups, explained Hessing.

Tourism operators want to keep the bears there, anglers want to run the bears out and local residents have safety concerns, with bears frequently rooting through their trash.

There have been bear problems in this area for quite some time, she said in an interview Tuesday.

The bears have become food conditioned through their contact with people; then, as problem bears, they are shot, which has many ramifications.

It affects the commercial tour operators who offer excursions to see bears and it affects the hunting guide industry.

There is a quota on the number of bears that can be shot, so when a bear is killed it comes out of the quota, which could result in a season closure before a guide can take all his booked clients hunting — at $10,000 to $15,000 per client, this has major monetary implications.

However, allowing bears and humans to co-exist in such close proximity raises many safety concerns.

“In the past, I remember a state trooper who said, ‘This is so dangerous I should shut this whole place down,’” said Hessing.

“We don’t want this to happen. We want people to be able to fish and we want people to be able to watch bears.”

Managing contact between bears and humans, a growing concern across North America, is the main topic of discussion at the field officers bear workshop being held this week at the Westmark Whitehorse.

“We are hoping to reduce and stop incidents where you have to go out and shoot bears, because this has become habituated,” said Dennis Senger, spokesperson for the Yukon Environment department.

This three-day workshop is part of the long education process, teaching people how to live with bears, he continued.

Workshop presentations will cover bear-management practices for communities, parks and camps, aversive bear conditioning, capture and handling products and non-lethal deterrents, bear habituation in the Yukon, analysis of fatal bear attacks and long-term health effects of capture and handling on grizzly bears.

“By educating and informing people about bears, we will be able to stop them from being killed,” Yukon conservation officer Kris Gustafson told conference participants, many of whom are park wardens and bear biologists.

“We are under a microscope in many respects, and how we decide to co-exist with bears is very important.”

Concerned about the future of bears on the Chilkoot River, three groups from Haines, including the chamber of commerce, set up a stakeholders’ group whose mandate was to create a sustainable system where bears and other user groups could co-exist safely.

Meeting over the winter of 2000-01, it hammered out some guidelines that currently include secure food storage, designated fish-cleaning areas, no camping along the road and hiring a person to monitor the river and supervise activity there during the summer months.

Bears with repeated exposure to humans, like those on the Chilkoot, are deemed habituated.

Evaluating when bear habituation is advantageous for people and for bears and when it is injurious is one of the topics being covered at the conference.

“Our model for evaluating when habituation is desirable is — is it good for bears, is it good for people, what are the specifics that will make it good for both and, if you can’t, then you probably should not be supporting it,” said Stephen Herrero, a retired conservation biologist from Calgary.

The author of Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance  stressed that food conditioning and habituation don’t mix; it is too dangerous for people and bears.

When habituation is carefully planned, however, then there is the chance for some amazing experiences with bears, he said.

With proper habituation, humans can come reasonably close to bears and research has shown this can be done safely, provided you separate being around bears from bears being able to get any food rewards.

In these cases, he continued, there is a chance for developing very high-end, high-demand tourism that is respectful for the bears and at the same time provides a resource of human benefits, including cultural, educational, inspirational and financial.

“Probably, from the bear’s point of view, they would rather we would be a million miles away, but they don’t mind it cause what they learn over time, with repeated exposure to people, is that we don’t make a dam bit of difference in their environment.

“We become like a rock almost, we are totally neutral, we don’t harass them, we don’t feed them, we don’t try to scare them and we don’t run from them.”

Information and understanding, he continued, allows people to manage their fears and just relax and enjoy the bears for what they are. Typical interactions with bears are totally benign and enjoyable.

Hessing, an active member of the Haines stakeholders group, is hosting a public meeting tonight at the Westmark to present its progress on the Chilkoot and hear local opinions on the changes that have already been implemented.

“People in Haines really like the Yukoners coming over to fish there,” she said.

“I think some of the Yukoners have felt kind of singled out for their fishing, ‘cause we are asking them to do things differently, so I want to hear from people in the public about their perceptions of these changes and, if it’s not working, what they’d like to see.”

The meeting starts at 7 p.m.